Ranking the 5 Worst Signings of 2020 NBA Free Agency

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 28, 2020

Ranking the 5 Worst Signings of 2020 NBA Free Agency

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Several NBA teams had as many as eight months between the end of regular-season play outside the bubble in March and free agency in November to strategize their spending plans.

    Apparently, some could have used a little more time to think.

    For the most part, teams around the NBA were careful with their cash. Some of that had to do with a league-wide emphasis on preserving resources for a much deeper crop of free agents in 2021. There were some outliers, though—organizations that spent either too much or committed too many years to players who won't return acceptable levels of bang for buck.

    As always, we're viewing the worst free-agent signings from the team-value perspective. What we'll call "bad" contracts here are good for the players who signed them.

    So, which teams got most out of pocket with their pocketbooks?

Honorable Mentions

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Davis Bertans, Washington Wizards and Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets

    We're lumping these two snipers together, even if that's slightly unfair to Harris, whose game features dimensions—passable defense, a surprisingly solid fake-and-go game—that Bertans' doesn't.

    Harris and Bertans are both best known for their outside strokes, and their new deals reflect the undiminished premium on that specific skill. That said, it's fair to wonder whether Bertans' five-year, $80 million agreement or Harris' four-year, $75 million pact would have been quite as rich if not for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets' inability to replace either with cap space.

    Regardless of that predicament, which The Athletic's John Hollinger aptly labeled "the Bird rights trap," and which also led to some of the overpays that will land in our top five, we're not quite ready to call either of these truly bad signings.

    If forced to choose, Bertans' is worse because he's unlikely to start, and his defensive shortcomings make him difficult to put on the floor late in meaningful games...should Washington ever participate in any of those.

    Nothing matters more than outside shooting in today's NBA. We knew that already, but these two contracts carve that truism in stone. So because Brooklyn and Washington overpaid for the thing for which overpays are most justified, they skate by with an honorable mention.

           

    Steven Adams, New Orleans Pelicans

    Because it was part of a convoluted four-team trade that took a handful of different forms prior to its ultimate completion, Steven Adams' two-year, $35 million extension with the New Orleans Pelicans flew under the bad-signing radar.

    Though a post-trade extension is a little different than a straight signing or even a sign-and-trade swap, we can't overlook the strange decision by an organization that otherwise had itself a strong offseason. The Pels didn't cancel out the brilliant haul they got for Jrue Holiday by committing significant cash to an old-school center with a ton of mileage, but that pair of moves seemed like they were made by two different organizations.

    Adams is a reliable anchor in the middle and a defender who helps willingly, and he adds real heft. But players with his skills might only be worth a third—half, at best—of the $62.5 million he'll earn over the next three seasons.

    I'm fully prepared to cut Adams from this exercise if it's revealed the Pelicans are paying an extra fee for him to give the rest of the roster media training. If that's the case, New Orleans is getting its money's worth.

5. Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Clippers lacked the cap space to go out and sign someone with Marcus Morris' skills. Big wings who can hit a three and, in Morris' case, fit into any of the three frontcourt positions in a pinch, were in short supply this offseason anyway.

    So L.A., a team whose roster-building focus had to be on the last five minutes of do-or-die games in the conference finals and beyond, was always going to keep Morris around.

    Thanks to non-Bird rights, the Clippers had the ability to exceed the cap with a contract that paid Morris up to 120 percent of his 2019-20 salary, roughly $18 million per year. They almost hit that ceiling, retaining the 31-year-old on a four-year, $64 million contract.

    That deal will age terribly as Morris progresses into his mid-30s, and Los Angeles has to hope his 19-game audition last year, in which he shot just 31.0 percent from deep and looked a half-step slow defensively, doesn't mean age-related decline has already begun in earnest. He was significantly better in the playoffs, which is encouraging.

    Morris wasn't getting this kind of money anywhere else, but that didn't help the Clips, who were short on leverage and bereft of fallback options. The contract looks like poor value, especially when weighed against, say, Jae Crowder's three-year, $30 million deal with the Phoenix Suns.

4. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The best defense of the Detroit Pistons' three-year, $60 million investment in Jerami Grant is that Grant's previous team, the Denver Nuggets, were also prepared to make it.

    But Denver was desperate; like the Clippers with Morris, it lacked the resources to replace Grant's defense and spot-up shooting on the open market. The Pistons were not similarly situated. They could have spent their cap space in any number of ways, yet they opted to commit $20 million per season to a player who probably tops out as the fourth option on a good team.

    Presumably, the Pistons believe Grant has more shot creation in his game than he showed with the Nuggets, where 76.6 percent of his twos and 100 percent of his threes were assisted last season. Given those numbers, that seems like a misplaced belief.

    Grant is still just 26, and he is one of a select few players who can credibly defend five positions. But he's a dependent offensive weapon who needs spacing and plenty of playmaking around him. There are few environments where those two conditions are more abundant than in Denver, where Nikola Jokic lubricates every aspect of the offense.

    The Pistons do not have Jokic, nor will they have the spacing the Nuggets provided for Grant, which also unlocked his cutting game.

    Had Grant taken the $60 million from Denver, he would have been much better positioned to succeed, and the value proposition on this deal would have been better. In Detroit, everything will be harder, and his production will likely suffer.

3. Malik Beasley, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    This four-year, $60 million contract for an offense-only guard who probably shouldn't start reeks of a preexisting agreement.

    There'll be no proving it, but it's almost impossible to imagine there was an offer sheet out there for restricted free agent Malik Beasley as rich as the deal he signed to stick with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    Maybe the Wolves and Beasley had these terms agreed to months ago, before it was obvious teams with the cap space to extend big offer sheets would be in short supply, and before Beasley's legal troubles further dinged his value.

    The sunk-cost fallacy is at work here, too. Minnesota coughed up a valuable asset in Robert Covington for Beasley, so letting him walk for nothing would have been painful. That thinking may have contributed to the overpay.

    If, going forward, Beasley shoots it like he did in his 14-game audition with the Wolves last year (42.6 percent from deep on 8.2 attempts per game), he'll be a useful player. But Minnesota is critically short on wing defenders, and Beasley, barring a game overhaul, isn't one of those. His minus-1.25 Defensive RPM ranked right between noted sieves Josh Jackson and Marco Belinelli among shooting guards last season.

    And with Anthony Edwards slotting into the rotation alongside D'Angelo Russell, Ricky Rubio and Josh Okogie, in a worst-case scenario, Beasley could become a $15 million fourth guard.

2. Mason Plumlee, Detroit Pistons

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    Kim Klement/Associated Press

    We saved the most confounding fact of Detroit's offseason for its other contract on this list: To fit new deals for Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, who signed for an inexplicable three years and $25 million, the Pistons had to make multiple trades for the express purpose of waiving and stretching the players they acquired.

    So not only did Detroit lavish over $8 million per season on a non-stretch, non-switch center, but it also paid other players to go away for the privilege.

    There's more. Christian Wood, who was basically the Pistons' only bright spot for all of last season, departed for the Houston Rockets on a contract that will pay him around $5 million more than Plumlee per year.

    Here's a thought!

    Instead of obliterating the market for a career backup at a position the league increasingly has no use for, why not spend a little more to retain an immensely talented (and younger) option who plays the same spot in a way that actually makes sense in the modern game? For that matter, why not just keep Dewayne Dedmon, who might outproduce Plumlee this year, rather than waiving and stretching his salary?

    As one of very few teams to enter the offseason with meaningful cap space, the Pistons were in the free-agency driver's seat.

    After the Plumlee contract and its related transactional shenanigans, Detroit, having spectacularly swerved off the road, is stuck in a ditch.

1. Gordon Hayward, Charlotte Hornets

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Virtually all of the reasons to dislike a free-agent signing coalesce in Gordon Hayward's four-year, $120 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets.

    For starters, it runs too long. Hayward is 30, has an alarming injury history and will be paid like a superstar for four years of what should be his decline phase. That's if he's healthy and can play enough for diminishing skill to be obvious.

    Then there's the annual rate of pay, which treats Hayward as if he's the best player on a postseason-bound team or, at the very least, a dominant second option on a contender. You don't pay someone $30 million per season unless that someone can plausibly carry you to the playoffs on his own or make a meaningful difference for a team that expects to advance several rounds.

    Hayward was a borderline superstar four years and several significant injuries ago with the Utah Jazz. With the Boston Celtics, he was a luxury third and fourth option when healthy.

    What is he for the Hornets, a team that just drafted a ball-dominant rookie point guard after going 23-42 and probably deserving an even worse record than that?

    This is where the true illogic of Hayward's deal shines through. The Hornets, badly misjudging their status in the league and the playoff picture, did the worst thing a small-market rebuilder could possibly do: They spent recklessly on someone who isn't good enough to alter that profile.

    Having just ended an era defined by Nicolas Batum's gargantuan and, in terms of its impact on team success, ineffectual contract, you'd think Charlotte would have known not to repeat the same mistake.

    Hayward is a good player. Perhaps he'll look more like the Utah edition of himself in a larger role. But even that version of Hayward won't be good enough to make Charlotte matter. In the unlikely event everything breaks right, the Hornets almost certainly won't be better than the East's top seven teams: the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and Toronto Raptors.

    That's to say nothing of the Atlanta Hawks and Pistons, who both spent big money to get better in the short term; the Orlando Magic, who won 10 more games than the Hornets and made the playoffs last year; and the Washington Wizards, who will get John Wall back and also forked over major cash to stay competitive in the short term.

    Rather than use cap space to take on bad money with picks attached, rather than focus on aligning the team's age band with LaMelo Ball, rather than targeting ideal lottery positioning for the next two loaded drafts, the Hornets spent excessively on a high-risk, declining talent who probably won't even earn them the eighth seed.

    Is there a "one million facepalms" emoji?

            

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.